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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Why do movies like this seem to think CGI -> no soul?
Watched this movie back-to-back with the 1990's original today. Could not help feeling betrayed, the way I feel betrayed when I watch the Transformers movies, or those other "super hero" movies that seem to go from good to bad (remember Batman & Robin? Spiderman 3? Superman IV?) What this movie did to deserve 2 (as opposed to 1) stars: realistic, beautifully rendered turtle ninja's with a distinct "hard core" visual feel appropriate to the 21-st century of xBox One and PS4.
What this movie did to deserve no more than 2 stars: a story centered on long boring "wow" effects driven battle sequences that actually put me to sleep. A plot that skips ahead with lurches that rival Transformers - Dark of the Moon. Complete absence of "turtle identity"... don't even think they said "Kawabonga". In the 90's movie, they were producing an homage to a cultural icon TV cartoon. April had her trademark yellow raincoat, the turtles reveled mightily in their pizza moments, and they were cast as a bunch of joke heroes who were unbeatable: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Hero's in a Half-Shell. Ridiculous but fun to watch not because you worried about whether shredder would gas the world with red Anthrax, but because these misfits had so much fun kicking shredder's but all over the place. Like watching Howard the Duck shred on guitar. And in this last aspect, the 1990's film departed a bit from the light-hearted feel of the cartoon to take on a dramatic "big screen" edge, but supplanted the main themes with comic and romantic elements with the Casey Jones character. Generally acceptable.
This 2014 movie appears to have been conceived around the high-stakes action drama concept from the start. There is very little fun. The turtles get their buts kicked all over the place. The foot clan, instead of being a bumbling gang of martial-arts also rans, turned into those generic AR toting bad guys you blast away in name-your-video-game without a second thought.
What you do get is a lot of eye-candy for the I-Max / 3-D HD screen. At bottom, it's the "immersive" tent-ride at the county fair where they used to project a first person roller coaster ride onto a curved sheet and everyone said "wow" and left feeling a little dizzy, only now it's been run through a battery of GPU's to bear hardly any adherence to actual laws of physics. In the middle of any one of these battles, they could have cropped out those beautifully rendered turtles and put in four transformers - that's how fungible the action and dialog are.
Sad. Could you imagine in the 80s equating Transformers with TNMT? Please Hollywood, pay more attention to who you put in charge of these projects.
The Last Chase (1981)
An interesting testament to perenial political fears
Not many folks today go around thinking about Barry Goldwater's slogan from the 1964 Republican convention. I wasn't even alive then, but as a child who spent more than a few sick days with a TV, a VCR, no cable, and a couple Uhf bootleg movies, one of them "The Last Chase", I understood that even though "extremism in the defence of virtue" may not be a vice, I could tell you at age 8 that it was a bad policy to follow.
Others have noted the various issues that come up in this movie. The energy crisis that isn't solved by new technology, but by the iron fist of regulation. Social control achieved through restriction of movement and herding people into cities. "Re-education" as a stand in for jail. Devolution of government into authoritarianism. An Ebola like plague laying waste to America.
These issues get paraded through the plot in a pretty clear black-and-white line up. Fast cars = good. Government bureaucrats = bad. And for that reason, this film has largely been written off as a mere adventure film, one that stacks up poorly against its contemporaries. But strip away the zooming car shots and barrel rolling areal sequences, and you get something that is a little bit GATACA, a little bit Vanishing Point, but with a very 1980s Reaganesque ideology.
You also have a few shallow side plots that are meant to break up the diadacticism. The creation of a father-son bond. The hopelessness of losing your purpose in life. The emotional baggage of causing a fatal crash, or losing your loved ones to premature disease.
Today all those things would be played out with color filters and weeping string accompaniments-over-dialuage that are the hallmark of post LORT "adventure" films. Back then, that was out of the question. Protagonists like square jawed Lee Majors looked you squarely through the camera lense and gritted out lines like "I've done a lot of losing in my life; I don't want to lose you too." All actor. Maybe not the best actor, but no fluffy BS. Solid performances by Majors and Meredith here, and nothing but praise for George Touliatos's Hawkins. Performances backed up, not tread upon, by a rich and powerful musical landscape which is, in my opinion, Gil Melle's best.
The story is simple: a man and a boy on the road, the latter there to expose the complex layers of the protagonist's character. Today, the story would be about a bunch of tweeny kids wrestling with themselves through emotional full-nelsons that would put Hulk Hulgan to shame. Got to play to the youth market if you want box-office $$$.
All I can say it, the conflicts in this movie make it well overdue for a remake, but thankfully the wrong people haven't made one. Redone in the minimalist style of "Road to Paloma", the 917 CanAm Spyder could come roaring to life again for an epic remake, but probably end up a commercial flop. Redone with typical Hollywood sensibilities (I'm thinking "Rollerball" now), it would still be a commercial flop. So there it is... if the film sounds interesting to you, nothing for it but to start looking through those crates of VHS bootlegs at the next yard sale you drive by... until, that is, the oil runs out.
The Boxtrolls (2014)
More allegorical meaning than you can fit in a box
The film Boxtrolls is so jam packed with themes that cut to the core of our society that you might expect it to be cobbled together, choppy, overreaching, and pretentious. It is, in fact, none of those things.
A thoroughly entertaining, not too cerebral, romp down one box conveyor after another, the film succeeds at wrapping it's central theme of persecution and prejudice in layers of equally significant ideas: group self-identification, class ambition, dalliant obsessions, self-esteem, and self-destructive addiction. It follows a nicely predictable plot arc that will satisfy your children while you ponder whether the plucky heroine's ostensible obsession with the macabre is likely a reflection of a Freudian complex with roots in her father's indifference. The bad guy with his crooked teeth and greazy hair is unmistakably evil. But at the same time the good guys aren't wearing the white hats. In fact, it's comparing and poking fun at both incompetence and maliciousness.
The animation finds it's grounding in a setting that is reminiscent of Corpse Bride. From the industrial green palate of the box trolls to the stiff and starched characterization of the patrician class, the visual design of the film holds together well.
After the film you'll walk out of the theater with lots of things on your mind, but you won't be walking out with a child who was bored to sleep or fits by another didactic feature of animated hogwash. That is an impressive achievement for any film.
Road to Paloma (2014)
Indie-style subterranean tension with a lighthearted face. *spoilers*
Road to Paloma and Joe, with Nicholas Cage, deal in essential the same moral dilemma, do modern laws do a better job at effecting justice than the suppressed truth that the weak are meat and the strong do eat (to quote the homo-erotic, black-sploitation, trekian dud that was Cloud Atlas).
But whereas Joe put the face of an irascible, end-of-his rope, sexually impotent, dead-end trailer park inhabiting, tree killing tough guy on the 11th hour self destructing deliverer of justice, Road to Paloma shows us a life-loving, even tempered, resourceful, smiling, respectful young Adonis running with the wind. Both are in for the same fate, but for Robert Wolf, it comes directly courtesy of the government. Joe is just unable to fight the "good" fight because of the local Sheriff, who in turn, is a pretty likable fellow. And in Paloma we have the same idea of the local federal officer who "get's it", but this time he has to serve the big-bad bogeyman from Washington.
Then there the small matter of whether in your image of unfettered masculinity, your preferences tend to a salt-of-the-earth GMC truck or a vintage Harley with a suicide shifter. The riding scenes in Paloma certainly channel Easy Rider. Yet this film possibly does a better job of capturing real fraternal bond between riding buddies Cash and Wolf than the overly simplistic Fonda-Hopper "tripping balls and gross fornication" stuff that played well in the 60s, but seems sort of bizarre and pointless in a smelly-hippy way in 2014. Whereas we are pretty sure Robert Wolf and Cash bedding down on the open road smell like John Wayne's leather chaps on the cattle trail, we think Fonda and Hopper probably smell like a couple of gross guys with really bad BO who bath in a lake by the side of the road once a month.
In fairness, Paloma is not likely to play well with the Sons of Anarchy fans. Not enough illicit crime and subterfuge. Not enough killing. Nor is it likely to win over the American Chopper / Biker Buildoff folks, who will no doubt scratch their heads at how you fix a radiator on a broken down Chevy with parts you've got stashed away in your saddlebags. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable film, with perhaps one to many landscape backdrop shots, implausible plot timing, and a highly unsatisfying ending.
Speed Racer (2008)
Definitely worth seeing / not a "weak franchise tie-in"
I caught this on video last night... most certainly it was NOT the weak franchise tie-in/prequel/etc. as suggested by the razzie nomination.
Poor tie-in's vs. well done tie-in: look at the two "Hulk" movies... the one from 2008 has the whole back story in the opening credits, then moves on to telling a story that is interesting and entertaining. The Ang Lee one trips all over itself sorting through the rich and often inconsistent source universe trying to piece together a coherent backstory and conflict, accomplishing not much other than telling the audience things that are not important or that it already knows, and you end up with a boring disappointment of a film that basically lives or dies on its CGI "wow" factor. (Cf. The Punisher vs Iron Man).
Speed Racer covered its whole back story in the first race sequence. The sequence shifts during that race were genius. The connection to the source material was accomplished not by nit picking through content of the source, but by duplicating motifs and tone (costuming, color, character behavior, etc. etc. true to the original stuff). This movie belongs up there with Sin City in that regard.
Unfortunately, the visual effects sequences also went as over the top in the "seizure inducing flashing lights" department as you would expect from a one legged film that can only stand on its CGI. I honestly had to ask if some of the track racing scenes were lifted out of a direct to DVD (or more often "made for cable") Hot Wheels Racer cartoon which end up being the bonus prize when you mail in the proofs of purchase from five boxes of co-co puffs. Maybe that was intentional, a backhanded salute to the social status of the source material. But my criticism here was only present in the track race action sequences, and the film made up for it by its fresh use of other forms of visual storytelling. (One of my favorites is the exaggerated sequence where Pops does some butt-kicking).
Parents be warned: due to the spasmatic virtual camera work during the race action, I would expect a child who has not been weened on PS3 and X-Box to watch this movie and have complete visual process overload, resulting in them climbing the walls and destroying much furniture (ironically, there is an actual scene in the film where the mother asks the kid watching TV: is that the same nothing you are doing that broke my last couch?) However, this is a film worth checking out.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
So much better than 2!!!
If you want to know how to doom a Marvel franchise to three with smashing success at the box-office, watch X-3. If you want to know how to come back from a big-turn out, too much sappy music, too much Hamelet-esquire pontificating on love and identity, too much screen time given to Gee-Wiz comic-science, and not enough bad-guy action, and hit a home run, Spiderman 3 is the answer.
The movie was genuinely fresh. The bad guys were complex and yet simple, in a way that made the poignant image of a number tattooed on Magnetos arm look flat. And the special effects were extraordinary. I'm not just talking about eye candy that shows up in every sci-fi movie and TV show now. There is a rapid decent free fall with full on fist fighting so complex and realistic, I can only imagine what it looked like in I-Max. The sandman special effects during the armored car fight were extraordinary. The funny business of strutting down the sidewalk in New York, or the enthusiastic french waiter were all employed to add some levity to what otherwise typically ends up a formulaic super-hero exercise of (1) Tell Good Guy's Story/Make him good (2) Introduce Bad Guy/make him bad (3) Make them Fight.
Part of this film was shot in Cleveland, but the visuals from New York were extrodinarily well placed ... and I don't mean an obligatory shot of the Chrysler building or the Empire State. There are shots of the top of the AT&T building casually woven into the background. There is the partial destruction of the Fisher building by a crane. Probably only New Yorkers and architectural fans will get these images, but it shows great attention to detail.
One criticism: it runs a little long. Cut action, and it would have dragged like Spidey 2. Cut the interludes with the singing and dancing, and it would have failed to impress on the order of X3. The one thing that could have been cut were the sappy scenes with Aunt Mae. Her presaging the difficulty between Peter and MJ, was completely unnecessary - it's a story that can tell itself.
Visual effects a la PS2
This movie looks like something for PS2. While these cheesy CGI cars and robots might fly for an interactive game, it makes the movie hard to watch. I cannot even guess what people were thinking when this film was given any visual effects award. The machines look like they were skinned without a dent or nick or rust (IMHO the robots in the short included on the DVD looked more realistic than the ones in the actual movie - if they couldn't afford good color CGI in the production, then the whole movie should have been black and white!) I borrowed this DVD from the library for free and that was a waste! As mentioned by others, the plot is pathetic - not enough structure to carry the story, and basic inconsistencies in the flow of events (for example, why did they trace a signal back to the middle of nowhere when the controler of the robots was clearly not there!) Don't waste your time on this "blockbuster".
Shi mian mai fu (2004)
Great movie with a few detractors
Downplayers of this movie quite simply are of small mind. This movie is one of the most visually stunning, just plain beautiful movies ever. Some have compared the costuming and color with "Hero". The comparison seems misplaced - each scene in House of Flying Daggers is like a lavish painting that is alive with color, motion, and countermotion. There is enough wire-work and fight action to keep the audience excited, but with just three major fight sequences and three individual fight sequences, the action gets enough bang for the buck to carry the slower scenes that develop the characters and plot. Naysayers simply fail to appreciate that, unlike most other action films, the characters here have completely believable motivations, struggle with relevant conflicts, and that also draws in viewers who can set aside the notions of what a martial arts flick is supposed to contain.
There were a few detractors, all of which come toward the end. First, while the second sequence of Mei and Jin riding away from each other sets up a nice symmetry, the shot of the rear of Jin's horse looked like he was in the same exact part of the woods as in the first sequence when he stopped his horse. Second, when they cut from the field with Mei and Jin to scene where Jin gets on his horse, the jump from field to forest seems choppy. I almost suspect that there was a whole alternate cut in which there is no scene in the field, and we have a much less risqué goodbye right there in the woods. And finally, when the snow started suddenly falling in the last battle, I started to feel like the director was trying to cram too many distinct settings into the film. None of these defects kept me from really enjoying the film.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Don't bother with this movie
Here are 10 reasons not to see this film: 1) Pathetic characters. We hear Magneto say, "they want to cure you" about 20 times. OK, enough. Jena/Pheonix: I've got a new red outfit... so I'll just stand around and from time to time my face will turn blue. Cyclops: ooopps, was he one of the significant x-men? Storm: I love the school and the professor. Logan: hmmmm... where to direct my angst... let's see... nowhere in this film. Hank: It's not easy being blue.
2) Pathetic fight sequence: Storm, did you ever learn how to fight? Maybe that wire harness is holding you back babe.
3) Pathetic plot line #1: Son... be normal... but then you can save me because of your unique differences in a completely contrived situation that plays uniquely to your ability.
4) Pathtic plot line #2: Everyone should be free, but then there are some people who can't be trusted with their own power... and the ethics of substitution of consciousness... just left hanging.
5) Genetic variations manifesting in essentially a social group which wants to be different and doesn't want to be cured. My five year old can get this symbolism.
6) Magneto's strategy: I'll get Phoenix on my side... but then let's not get her to actually do anything in the battle! 7) The opening scene has some really great special effects... like seeing Patrick Stewart made up to look 20 years younger. And a fight with the Sentinel... ! 8) Rogue... rogue, you might want to drain off some of Jean's power at some point. Well, don't let me impose on your right to choose to be normal if it might save the world.
9) I'd like my "army" of about 500 people to get to that island, and I command power over metal... let's see... what is the easiest way to get them across... is there a metal barge somewhere? Actually, I like moving big things, but it would make too much sense just to drop something really big, like say a bridge, on top of the people I want to destroy.
10) We have a three film license on the characters here... so let's make sure that we mess things up so much that no competing studio will come in and take over the franchise.
Mission to Mars (2000)
Slightly better than lost in space (oh my!)
It's a given that alien contact films borrow from there predecessors. Mission to Mars is basically a reworked version of the story first presented in "2001". There is the "we found something" start to the story. Then the "bad luck on our way there" trip through the solar system. Followed by the shocker revelation of alien intelligence / mysteries of the universe & life, etc.
Designed to be somewhat more plausible, set 20 years into the future with computers, spacesuits and mars rovers that look remarkably similar to what NASA currently uses, and without the super-brain of an artificial intelligent computer, it seems we could actually have real "Mission to Mars" capabilities based on current technology. So if its not a tech-wow film, what drives the film from scene to scene? Unfortunetely, little more than a half-baked concept of the outer space family - husbands and wives dedicated to exploring unknown worlds. Yes folks, it's lame. Very lame.